The NS Interview: Colin Blakemore

“It’s touch and go whether we humans will outlive the century” - Colin Blakemore, neuroscientist

What drew you to science?
I had a young biology teacher at school who was full of stories about DNA and nerve impulses. I found it so exciting. Science was a way of asking questions about the world that had extra­ordinary power.

Were you always ambitious?
Yes, but I hope in a good sense. I came from a family where no one had been to school beyond the age of 14. The welfare state made it possible for people of my background to aspire to anything.

What was your first experiment?
When I was about 12, I was curious about the woodlice that collected near the back door of the kitchen. I liked the way they curled into a little ball if you touched them - but after several touches they stopped reacting. The next morning I found that they still remembered not to curl up. I thought: it's got to be something changing in its nervous system - a memory - and if it's a memory, is it like the memories that we have?

Did that spark your interest in the brain?
It must have been significant, because much of my research has been on plasticity of the brain.

Will we ever fully understand the brain?
Who knows? But hope - or rather trust in the power of science - springs eternal.

What will we know about it 20 years from now?
We might know more about how the 100 billion nerve cells in the brain work as a whole. Some would identify that with consciousness, though we don't know what consciousness is, or how it's created.

You have often worked with government. Do you enjoy the experience?
Although the Westminster village is in many ways unattractive, there is a buzz about being close to where decisions are made. But I also think that scientists who owe their career to public funding, as I do, have a duty to give useful knowledge to the government.

Are you worried about this government's impact on science?
Unfortunately, the immediate impact will be determined much more by the economic situation than ideas. I went to hear David Willetts's big speech at the Royal Institution. He was very upbeat, saying he will argue that science should be made a priority. I hope that view prevails.

In the wake of the Climategate scandal, do you feel that science is under attack?
Yes. Science is sharing in the downside of trans­parency and access to information. But the upside of those things is so positive for society that it's just something we have to live with.

Who are the enemies of science?
There are forces, both commercial and private, that want to sidestep the rigorous methodology of science to sell a product or an idea. If such forces can hide behind misrepresentation and the libel laws and enforce the silence of critics, that is dangerous, and a disaster for the public.

Are you still attacked for your support of animal testing?
There has been a huge shift, not just of public opinion, but also in the attitude of the media. The key is scientists' increasing confidence in talking about what they do and not being cowed by fear of attack from activists.

What is your view of homoeopathy?
I wouldn't ban homoeopathy, but I want regulations for conventional medical treatments to be imposed on homoeopaths. If that happened, the public could make choices based on evidence and I hope that would put them out of business.

What does God mean to you?
I don't have any religious faith. I believe that human beings will eventually come to see religion as a misconception. Paradoxically, I think the curiosity that drives science might spring from the same source as faith. It is the same desperate desire to find answers to questions, but in the end religion never provides them.

Is there a plan?
I'm 66 and I have no interest in winding down. I want to continue doing experiments. But I also want to contribute to how science can help society as a whole.

Do you vote?
I've always voted Lib Dem, but that doesn't necessarily reveal my political philosophies. I voted for Evan Harris in Oxford - he was a voice for enlightenment in the Commons.

Is there anything you regret?
How could anyone be so arrogant as to say "no" to that question?

Are we all doomed?
Well, the earth is doomed, physically - it can't last for ever. But if you're asking whether human beings will outlive this century, it's touch and go. We must trust in science; it's the only solution to the problems we face.

Defining moments

1944 Born in Stratford-upon-Avon
1962 Wins scholarship to study medicine at Corpus Christi, Cambridge
1979 Becomes Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford
1989 Wins Royal Society's Michael Faraday Prize for public communication in science
1997 Receives death threats from the Animal Liberation Front
2003 Appointed head of Medical Research Council; serves until 2007

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science